On Leaving the Birthplace of Standard Time - Believer Magazine
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On Leaving the Birthplace of Standard Time

I came to Chicago at the tail end of 1993, a moment that has been described as one of the most exciting in American music history. I went, at the time, to two or three shows a night, right up until I moved west in 1999. I wanted to go off-grid then, to escape not the electrical grid, but the urban one: the physical division of space along right angles, featuring sequentially ordered lot numbers, a logic that allows you to look up from any outdoor location in the city and know exactly how many houses you are away from your own. You can easily calculate how long it will take you to get to your house, or anywhere else, and the best means of crossing that terrain. And suddenly your life is efficient, predictable, and you feel accomplished for having figured out something so complex, simply by looking at an address. Even if you have just stumbled out of a show at the Abbey Pub at 12:45 drunk as shit and are trying to get to the Empty Bottle to catch the headliners before they climb offstage. A later analysis will reveal that each of the performers you traipsed around town for that night had different careers by decade’s end: one became an accountant, another joined the police force, two married and moved to a farm to raise twins.

You can calculate quite a bit about the future from any street corner in Chicago, but what you cannot predict is whether or not you will be happy there.

I found that first time away from the urban grid chaotic and distressing. Streets wandered aimlessly and adopted new names, there was no way of telling how long travel might take within the city, and people were often late for appointments. I returned to the grid four years later. I had to get on with my life. I wasn’t getting any younger.


Chicago’s grid system is more than a satisfying urban plan, however; it reflects the very origins of modern time, and the many efficiencies it birthed. Indeed, right at the intersection of Jackson and LaSalle downtown, there’s a plaque celebrating the adoption of standard time in 1883. Here’s a travel blog with details:

“In the aftermath of the destruction of downtown Chicago by the Great Chicago Fire of October 1871, all of the central city was rebuilt, and pretty quickly, too. One of the architects in the city who got nearly more work than he could handle was W. W. Boyington, whose Chicago Water Tower and Pumping Station at Chicago Avenue and Michigan Avenue (then Pine Street) were among the very few structures that survived the fire. Among Boyington’s commissions after the fire were two on Jackson Boulevard at LaSalle Street—a prestigious address as the financial district was being rebuilt in that area… On the northeast corner of the intersection was the Grand Pacific Hotel, a very swanky hostelry that stood across the street from the newly rebuilt Chicago Board of Trade Building, also designed by Boyington… Then as now, the CBOT building had a large town clock by which many in the financial district set their pocket watches. But how was the rest of the city—or, for that matter, the rest of the state or the region—to agree upon the time?

Though it may seem strange now, there was no single national time system being used. Many towns and cities, especially along railroad lines, set their time according to the railroad’s clock. The railroads themselves depended on local noon as the determining factor, but that resulted in more than a hundred different local time zones. You can see how this made setting accurate train schedules difficult… So when the railroads decided they had to do something to standardize the time system, you can bet everyone was interested.”

You’ve probably heard this story before: the railways developed, and then implemented, standard time in order to ease travel across great distances. And people, because they love being on time for things, responded enthusiastically. Any closer inspection reveals this is a bold-faced lie, which we’ll get back to in a moment, but I can’t let you overlook the significant presumption embedded in this tale: that agreeing on a single notion of time is, in any way, desirable.

There was a time when I would have concurred that it was. And admittedly, it is hard to imagine a world that functions without being able to say, “Let’s all meet up here at 7:00 for this reading, and then I will read, and it will take between seven and ten minutes and then you can go home.” But just because that is how the world functions now does not mean that other functioning worlds are not possible.

Back to our travel blog:

“[Boyington’s] Grand Pacific Hotel II … was one of the first … big, important hotels built in Chicago immediately after the fire. It occupied a square half-block bounded by Jackson, LaSalle, Quincy… and Clark Street[s]… The Grand Pacific was designed … in the then popular grand palazzo style and served both travelers and wealthy permanent residents, some of whom did business across the street [at the Board of Trade]. It was here that in 1883, delegates from all the US and Canadian railroads held the General Time Convention to find a better, uniform way of setting the time.”

Note, please, who it was that we are told wanted time standardized: the robber barons that ran the railroads, the wealthy, and high-stakes financial investors. Let me take another moment to underscore that: the standardization of time did not emerge from a popular uprising.

A little over a century later in 1989, an astronomer, employee of the US Army Laboratory Command, and time historian named Ian R. Bartky published an article called “The Adoption of Standard Time.” In it he revealed that standard time was not initiated by the railways at all, in fact it was initiated by astronomers, who preferred to let the private interests of the railroads both do the dirty work of and take the blame for the fundamental shift to the way US citizens arranged their days and interacted with each other that standardized time would require. Of course this was calculated. People already hated the rich, who ran the railroads, but harbored few to no opinions about the scientists who looked at stars. Those scientists, however, needed a better way of communicating across great distances of land what was happening at the same exact time. Why not see if the railways would get on board this standard time thing, the astronomers figured, and do the dirty work? Pure science should not be sullied by such quibbles.

For it turns out that the standardization of time was enormously controversial. Bartky describes explosions and people shooting out the massive town clocks that the railways had installed—monuments to a hated temporal uniformity—in protest of the stripping away of individual determination over when things were going to happen.

What people were protesting the loss of, and how they got around even on trains before the introduction of standard time, was by talking to other people. Business owners were angered by standard time because a centrally installed clock meant no one had to step into their stores to inquire what the local time was. Unmarried young people were sad because eligible hotties passing through had no excuses to start conversation. And train porters—perhaps the most frustrated of all—saw full minutes shaved off of needed rest stops at several different points in their already long, overworked days.

Before standard time, in other words, when you went somewhere new, you had to get to know people to figure out how things worked there. The locals liked it. It seemed to work for everyone, in fact—except the astronomers, the railways, and the rich, who collectively found it easier to track planetary changes and fire people for being a few minutes late to work or for taking lunch breaks for too long.

The plaque itself commemorates Sunday, October 11, 1883, the “Day of Two Noons.” On that date, astronomers at the Allegheny Observatory at the University of Pittsburgh transmitted a signal at noon on the 90th meridian, and railroad clocks were reset to it. The plaque was presented to the Continental Bank from the Midwest Railway Historical Society on November 18, 1971. Note that the plaque simply restates what I have already told you: the astronomers gave the signal, the railways capitulated to it, and the banks celebrated it.


A few years ago I accrued several debilitating diseases in a process some call “falling out of time.” I now function on crip time, which, to crips, means that we operate on a different schedule. We require more time to perform certain tasks than is usually allotted under the regimented, efficient system of standard time. The phrase is also used disparagingly. If you are invited to an accessible event, perhaps with ASL translators or requiring complicated maneuvers to allow wheelchairs entry, the able-bodied man sitting next to you may joke about crip time, by which he will mean that the event is starting later than he would like it to.

I should mention that I was born on a reservation in South Dakota, where we had a similar concept named Indian time, but described it otherwise. Indian time is the awareness that time—standard time in particular—is a construct of capitalism, and the doings of animals like people are not beholden to patterns of efficiency or imperialism. Nothing need proceed until the various spirits beckon them to convene, which is why I once spent four days waiting for a guy to teach CPR to my camp counselors, so I’m not saying that it doesn’t take some getting used to. Indian time is differentiated, in South Dakota at least, from slow time and fast time, because the latter refer to Standard Time Zones, that are sort of arbitrarily adhered to in certain regions of the state based mostly on whim. If one is late for a meeting, for example, one does not apologize by saying one is on Indian time; one says one has accidentally set one’s watch to slow time. For if one is genuinely on Indian time, there is no reason to refer to other formulations of time, because they do not matter.

This same concept is called something else in Latin America, and in the Styrian region of Austria, and outside of Tbilisi in the Republic of Georgia. From what I can gather they don’t bother calling it much of anything in the provinces of Cambodia, because folks will just get to stuff when they’re ready, if it really needs doing, and actually, why would you care what needs doing and what doesn’t. Why don’t you have a nap? It’s hot out.

This is the basic principle at work in crip time. When you get sick, it becomes clear real fast when something doesn’t really need doing after all. I’m finding, more and more, that what I don’t need to do is calculate from any street corner how to get to my next destination. In fact, I no longer wish to be destination-driven at all. So, nearly 23 years after I arrived, I’m leaving the grid a second time. While it’s still technically true that I’m not getting any younger, I no longer care that I am getting older. In fact, a certain number of disease diagnoses in, I’ve learned to relish it.

To my friends in Chicago, stuck on this grid for a while, or a lifetime, I leave you this thought: standard time, as natural as it now seems, has only defined certain humans for 135 years. It was implemented by scientists, bankers, and railway owners to ease their workloads and tax yours, in a decision that kept people from interacting with each other, from getting to know each others’ needs and interests. Standard time need not last forever. Before its implementation, there were local times, and before that, crip time, or Indian time, maybe slightly different notions with separate sets of values distinguishing how we, as individuals, might prioritize our days. Nonstandard times still exist, everywhere, and serve to remind us that we matter as individuals, that our sense of well being and personal abilities may not be best served by zones, alarms, deadlines, or grids.

I’ll leave you with this thought, sent by a friend in Uganda, where certain celebrations, like weddings, parties, and graduations, start late on purpose. The things that really matter deserve your patience, and starting on time might signal to the audience that they do not truly deserve the event.

“There is so much value,” Asia writes from her home in Kampala, “in subverting standard time in big and small ways.”


An excerpt from this essay was delivered at “First Time” at the Miss Spoken Reading Series at the Gallery Cabaret in Chicago.

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